How HSPs Can Benefit From Understanding How “Projection” Works

The previous blog post explored How HSPs Can Use Courage and Creative Self-Expression To Invite Creativity.

Now we’re going to move on to Projection.

So what is ‘Projection’ and how does a good understanding of Projection help a Highly Sensitive Person?

To delve into this I’d like to share with you the first time I encountered this word in action.

I’d recently learned I had the HSP Trait and had formed a local HSP Meetup Group. I wasn’t able to book our first meeting room at the library, so instead we were meeting in a garage that had been somewhat “fashioned” into a livingroom.

There were utilitarian chairs, an old area rug, scratched wooden coffee tables, heat and light.

The ambience was a bit rough, (the majority of HSPs like and appreciate calm, clean and aesthetically pleasing environments), but it was an adequate workaround until our next meetings which would take place in a meeting room in a library, where our room had been booked for the following five meetings taking place once a week for the next five weeks.

Four other HSPs arrived for our first meeting. They were greeted with a welcome, a smile and invited to write their name on a nametag, as I introduced myself and apologized for the ad hoc meeting location arrangement for our first meeting. The first time HSP attendees were gracious, accommodating and smiled back at me.

I wasn’t nervous about the upcoming meeting because I had a plan.

We would be following the HSP Discussion Group guidelines, which included structured meetings with planned exercises. I’d read through the exercises and was feeling relatively comfortable and prepared, intellectually.

But I wasn’t prepared for what happened next. And what happened was my first introduction to “Projection” – cleverly, in my opinion, disguised as an exercise called “First Impressions”.

The exercise goes like this; if there are four people present (other than yourself), you take two minutes to write three things you noticed about one person in the group, then two minutes to write three things about the next person, and so on until you’ve written three things about each person in the group. Then the group chooses one person and everyone else tells them what they’ve written about that person (nothing else), after which, the person receiving the feedback says, “Thank you.” This continues until each person has heard feedback about themselves.

Sounds easy right?

Wrong.

Because the exercise is designed to show you how Projection works.

Because what you will hear from others when they give you their feedback isn’t “true” of you, it just reflects the impression you made on these people who are new to you. So you’ll be hearing others’ Projections – so what they value that they look for in others. You’ll also be noticing your own Projections, “You have good taste in clothes,” may mean I value someone who has good taste.

Or alternatively, you may hear someone say, “I like how you dressed tonight, you have good taste,” when in fact I may have an automatic distrust of people who put a lot of effort into their appearance, so it’s one of my complexes.

Sometimes we can project onto others something we deny in ourselves, so I can say, “You’re mad”, when in fact, you aren’t, I am, but I don’t know it yet, or I’m denying it.

See, all projections need an outer, physical “hook” that make them seem valid, even if it isn’t.

So the exercise begins shedding light on the value of beginning an inner journey, a journey that begins on the premise of self-awareness.

In this way I began learning, with practice, how others project onto me, but I also began learning about how I project onto others when, after the meeting was over, I re-read what I wrote down about others. And as I began to practice this more in my everyday life, I began to see how Projection is a relatively automatic response in myself and others.

But more importantly, practicing noticing Projection required me to be more present and aware of my thoughts and feelings moment-to-moment, and to question them when needed.

Why is this valuable?

Because the majority of HSPs have been taught to gauge their value based on others’ projections, which may, or may not, be valid.

It’s also related to setting healthy boundaries, because when you begin the journey of delving into understanding how Projection works, you understand yourself more and you begin to develop a keener understanding of what belongs to you, what you’re responsible for, and what belongs to someone else and what they’re responsible for.

Knowing what emotions, thoughts and beliefs belong to you, and what belongs to someone else allows you to appreciate their perspective without “buying” into it, which can end up saving you a lot of time and energy.

Because as an HSP we pick up on so much; not only the subtleties of our physical environment, but also on the energy of others, their ever-changing facial expressions, their reactions to others, their comfort level, their emotional state – to name a few, and most HSPs have learned the value of this information is relevant only in the context of how they can “help” someone else. Not, how they can filter through this information to help themselves.

In total I had the amazing opportunity to facilitate six HSP Discussion Groups, and each time we practiced the Projection exercise it allowed me to continue to delve into my own inner journey, of understanding how my own beliefs and others’ beliefs shape my perception of people, situations and of myself.

It was like peeling an onion, diving into the experience of understanding Projection.

For example, my feedback to someone in the group like, ­­­“John I feel uncomfortable that you may not like me,” may be because John “seems” to be a judgmental person to me. But is this really about John? Or is it about how I’m perceiving John and it’s really about me, and how I’m judging myself in that moment?

And so begins the journey into delving into what you own, what belongs to you, what you have to work on, and what belongs to someone else. How freeing for an HSP!

Like many HPSs, I was brought up to believe my priority in life, the way I was to operate and be of value, (and for me in many instances, it was a survival technique), was to make others “more emotionally comfortable”. So to begin understanding this isn’t in my control, nor is it my responsibility – allowed me to step into deeper understandings of myself, which also led to taking responsibility for my own emotions and thoughts, with an emphasis on self-compassion, self-acceptance and self-forgiveness.

I liken gaining a good understanding of Projection to that of a butterfly in a cocoon. As my understanding of Projection increased, my own self-awareness and depth of understanding of myself, (and this included struggles just as a butterfly struggles in its cocoon), began gaining strength and momentum.

Until the phase arrived where I began recognizing, instead of in spurts, or only at certain times, each moment that didn’t “feel right” to me, when someone else was trying to project onto me – because as my self-awareness and my practice of staying grounded in the moment grew, I began picking up on what I “felt” comfortable with, what “sounded” authentic, and what didn’t. If it didn’t “feel” right, or “seem” right, I disengaged. Simple.

Here’s an example of this in action. I travel and recently met a gentleman. After asking me what country I’m from he said, “You’re a female travelling alone in a foreign country? That’s dangerous.” And gave me a look that indicated he didn’t think it was wise. And here is where, as an HSP, I used the tool of projection, because as with everything, practice is highly beneficial.

I immediately understood that I was dealing with an individual who was attached to their own perceptions and beliefs and hadn’t yet challenged these perceptions and beliefs (note, I once too operated on this level so I don’t relate this in a way that contains any judgment), and was therefore prone to being judgmental. They were also someone who was fearful (note the word “dangerous”). How attached they were to their beliefs was reflected in their “knowing” look. Meaning, they believe they understood reality in a way that was superior to how I do.

Was I going to change this person’s mind? No. Would it be a good use of my time and energy to try to? No. So I simply smiled and said it was a beautiful country and I found the people very friendly, which it is and which I have, and I disengaged. The conversation ended. This is how I practice self-compassion.

Here’s another example. “They feel bad and that’s why they’re acting the way they’re acting”. This is something one family member said to me about another family member. This is trickier because it pulls at memories and beliefs that involve a history of family dynamics, and unless you belong to an emotionally healthy family, this is where most HSPs struggle. I know I did.

As a friend wisely said, this involves dealing with a large pancake stack of projections from the past and from our childhood and in many instances projection is used to manipulate, sometimes unintentionally, and sometimes intentionally.

In this case, the sentence spoken to me was communicated to me so I would “rescue” or “save” the family member from feeling this way, a way that would include me not valuing my own beliefs and values, and would require me to overstep what I’d worked hard at creating for myself – healthy boundaries.

My response? “I understand why they’re feeling that way, and I trust they’ll find a way to heal and move toward a way of being where they don’t feel a need to act that way.” In this way I was releasing myself from any obligation to “do” anything.  This is how I practice self-compassion.

Another example? “I always find you to be so calm, and it calms me.” This is something I’ve heard frequently. Which is a compliment, but in some instances it’s a projection. When it’s projection I notice it because it “feels” off. It “feels” inhibiting. It feels as if they don’t want me to express my own wants or needs, whether that be my time or my energy, because that would involve them having to compromise.

Most HSPs aren’t prone to confrontation, and while I don’t particularly like it, if it’s needed, it’s needed. If I need to address a difficult situation and someone begins with this projection, I understand this is their way of trying to control me.

In this case I allow myself to express my feelings and thoughts, regardless, knowing my feelings are valid and important, and I give myself permission to express them. This is how I practice self-compassion.

Understanding how Projection works, for me, has been a journey into a level of self-awareness and understanding that becomes more freeing with each step. In some instances I’ve recognized when I was projecting, and I’ve used these opportunities to delve into the parts of myself that are based on beliefs that aren’t valid and don’t serve me.

And so, eventually, I was able to leave my cocoon, into a way of being that feels lighter, adaptable, and in line with my values and purpose. This knowing allows me to shape my life, moment-by-moment into one where I feel comfortable and at ease.

And, so far, this is what learning about Projection has given me - the gift of freedom, understanding, compassion, acceptance and peace.

What’s your understanding of the world ‘Projection’? Have you noticed it in action in your own life?